By Tony Sokol
CMT is getting into its Country Music Television roots with Sun Records, a new series “set in Memphis during the tumultuous early days of the civil rights movement” that “tells the untold story of nothing less than the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.” The down home studio in Memphis is where Sam Phillips recorded the very first side of rock and roll, “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner. Phillips also recorded B.B. King and Muddy Waters, but Sun is best known for its Million Dollar Quartet: Johnny Cash before he was the man in black; piano killer Jerry Lee Lewis; the man with the unscuffed blue suede shoes, Carl Perkins and, of course, that ol’ hound dog himself, Elvis Presley.
Elvis would never have stepped foot in Sun Records if it wasn’t for the true love of his life, his mom Gladys Presley. Elvis plunked down the cash he made driving trucks to record a Valentine’s Day single-play record for Gladys. Long before the rock and roll legend went Vegas, it was his mom who made those peanut butter and banana sandwiches he snacked on while making deliveries.
Ann Mahoney knows her way around the music and the kitchen. As Olivia, she ran the pantry on AMC’s The Walking Dead until she forgot she wasn’t Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Mahoney will be playing Gladys. Born in New York and raised in New Orleans, she grew up in a house full of music. Her father, the composer John Mahoney, taught jazz at Loyola University. Mahoney spoke exclusively with Entertainment 2morrow about her studies in all things Presley.
Entertainment 2morrow: So, you’re playing Elvis’s mom.
Ann Mahoney: I am, I’m playing Gladys Presley. I’m very excited.
You’re the reason he swiveled his hips into Sun Studios in the first place. How cool is that?
I love playing it. It’s the first time I’ve played a historical character on television. I’ve done them on stage but never on film or television. I really understand her. I’m a mom too. I have two little ones. I love who she is and what a mama bear she was and what an influence she had on Elvis, how close their relationship was. It’s just a dream come true to be able to play her.
Are you a proud mom or are you worried about this devil rock and roll?
Well, there’s both. Both are going on. Like all parents, once you start realizing how talented your kids are, especially Elvis, he was such an amazing talent, it’s disconcerting. It’s kind of like ‘woah, he really has something here, where’s it going to take him?’ She definitely was concerned about the influence of rock and roll in his life. They were a church-going family, often to be heard sitting on the porch singing hymns in several-part harmony. That was definitely a concern of hers but then I think she realized that this was his path and he was going to take that path. As long as she was his sweet ol mama, everything was going to be okay. Whatever he did, I could bring him back in walking on the right path.
Public Enemy sang that Elvis was a hero to most but a racist to them. He didn’t learn that from mommy, did he?
It’s more Elvis’ father, Vernon. He was against that. There is a scene where Vernon yells at Elvis for going to the “colored church” because Elvis would go to their church and then he would go to the African-American church to worship and listen to that music. When the parents found out, he was in deep, deep trouble.
How is Sun Studio treating the racial divide that went along with Sam Philips’ personal integration of the south?
They are dealing with it. They are definitely addressing that. And then addressing where the music comes from, which was specifically in the African-American community. I think they’re doing a beautiful job with that.
Did the director stick you in a room to listen to period music as acting prep?
You know? That’s actually what I do as an actor, to prepare myself: a lot of research, a lot of looking at pictures of where they lived and understanding the time period. In the music, I listened to it. I found out what music Gladys was drawn to and her favorite song of Elvis’ and all those kinds of things. That what I do as an actor to be sure that I am prepared.
What was Gladys listening to?
She listened to a lot of gospel music. She really loved gospel music and her favorite Elvis song was actually “Don’t Be Cruel.” There’s an interview of her, one of the few bits of recorded interviews out there that I could find, there’s not a whole lot out there because of her accent. It’s at a parade, the interviewer asked her what was her favorite song and she said one was “Baby Let’s Play House” and the other one is “Don’t Be Cruel.” But gospel music was the main music she listened to.
Was Gladys musical?
Yes, she sang. She sang. Vernon sang. Elvis sang. They used to sit on the porch and sing three part harmonies together.
Are you musical?
Yes, I sing and I sort of play piano. My father is a jazz musician, a composer. My mother is a classical musician. She’s also nurse. Both my brothers are musicians. I’m from a very musical family.
Of the musical genres from the early fifties, blues, rockabilly, rock and roll and doo-wop, what sings to you?
The rockabilly is kind of my drug of choice out of those. I really love that. I still love it. I still love that rockabilly beat. I find it a little bit dirty. I love listening to that. Surfer bands. I enjoy doo-wop because, how could you not? Some of the best pop songs ever written, but I love rockabilly. It seems like you’re naughty and shouldn’t be listening.
Do you boogie woogie with your left hand at the piano?
I don’t do much boogie woogie. I took lessons for a number of years. I’m okay on piano. I can sight read a little bit, but singing is my thing. That’s what I do. I’ve done a lot of musical theater and sing some jazz with my dad and my brothers.
Did anything surprise you when you were doing research in your actor’s prep?
Yeah, it’s interesting. The thing that really struck me was the fact that she was pregnant with twins. Elvis was one of the twins. His older brother, Jesse, was born first. He had already passed when he was born and Elvis wasn’t born until thirty minutes later. That really helps me understand why he was her everything. I never had twins, but, if I was pregnant with twins and one of them had been born dead, I would assume that the next one was gone too. So when he was born alive it must have been a moment that she could live because the second baby was alive. From that moment he kind of became her miracle. Then she hemorrhaged for six weeks after having him and that’s when she contracted hepatitis. One of the reasons she looked much older than her age for much of her life is because was actually pretty sick. That was something that helped me understand why she pins all these hopes on Elvis. She knew that he was a miracle, that there was something super-special about him, from the get-go because he survived. Then she was determined to pour all of her energy into him and I’m certain she probably couldn’t get pregnant again after all that. So he was her only baby.
This show isn’t gonna make Elvis’ relationship with his mom all weird, is it?
No, uh-uh, but there is a bit of an unhealthiness about their relationship. Not creepy unhealthiness, but she had a really hard time when he went off to work, started to really mentally break down. She had prophetic dreams about him. He would slip out and went riding in a car one night. He got in a wreck and the car caught on fire and she had a dream that he was in a car and it was on fire. He called her that night and she was a complete wreck already. They were very connected on a deep level spiritually. We definitely deal with that and I think that there was a part of her that wanted him to do really well. But also was worried about what the world would do to him and if he could be taken away from her, because she poured all of her hopes into him.
Do you believe in these psychic connections?
Prophetic dreams? Oh sure, I have those with my kids. If something’s going on with them, I get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Before I have any real indication that that’s happened. Both of my kids, especially when they were still at home, they’re still at home, but they go to school now. But when they were babies, I don’t think I slept for the first two years of either of their lives. I was always completely aware and waiting to make sure that they were okay at every minute of the day. So, absolutely, I believe that that happens. Moms and their babies, they start being only yours in your body. Your heartbeat regulates their heart beating. Both of my babies are breast fed, that’s a connection too. I fed them with my own body. So yes, mommy stuff is deep.
How is CMT as bosses compared with AMC? Do they have different topical concerns being more country?
I think it’s a wise place to put that show. It’s an audience that they know is going to love it. I think it’s going to go way beyond the CMT audience, though, because so many people just love Elvis. And love Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lewis, love those stories. CMT is its own thing. AMC is a really kind of established gritty brand. Their stuff is pretty gritty. This show I find to be very lush, the way that they shot it. Roland Joffe is the director of all eight episodes. He’s one of my favorite directors of all time. He directed one of my favorite movies of all time The Mission. He also directed The Killing Fields. The Mission, of course, is set in this beautiful rain forest. It was a given that it would be lush, the way he shot it was gorgeous. He did the same with this show. You’re going to be amazed by the movement in the show. There’s nothing static in the show. It dances. He’s an incredible, incredible director.
Do they feel they have to play to a family audience with this or are they going to get down to the nitty gritty of the dirt bands?
I think they do a little bit of both. I don’t think it’s tame, by any stretch. Jerry Lee Lewis’ story certainly isn’t tame. Elvis initially is kind of a sweetheart of a little guy, but he, like all famous people, starts to sow his wild oats. So I think they’ve done a healthy balance of keeping it truthful. It was a different time. There was an innocence about that time. There is a conversation that Vernon and Gladys have with Elvis when Trixie, his girlfriend’s dad calls. “Are you getting in trouble with this girl? You need to focus on your studies.” They are very fifties, sixties, so there is an innocence about it. But then there is the other side of fame and the music business and we definitely get into that.
Do the actors finger or really play their instruments?
These guys are true triple threats. They sing their own stuff. They play their own stuff. Chuck Mead, he was our guitar guy while Elvis was on set, and he was practicing and he was learning the fingering and he was playing. The very first day that we shot, actually, he sings “That’s All Right, Mama” and plays guitar. I was in the other room waiting to start the take and I hear this child sing. He’s seventeen. I heard him singing and tears just rolled right down my cheek because he sounds just like Elvis. It just floored me. His voice is beautiful and sincere, just like I feel Elvis’s was. Whoo, it was something else. So you’re going to see these men, these boys, really do this: really sing, really dance, really play their instruments. It’s good stuff.
It’s old news now that the producers of The Walking Dead will be cutting back on the violence from the first half of the last season. Do you wish they’d have thought of that before they shot you in the face?
You know? Speaking of prophetic dreams and what not, I’m a real believer that things happen in exactly the order that they need to to push you forward in your life and make sure you’re free for whatever comes next. So I don’t have any regrets about it. Of course I’m bummed because I loved working on the show. I loved the cast. I loved the crew and the directors that I got to work with. Certainly it’s opened a lot of doors wide open for me so I’m very thankful for that. I think it’s appropriate. It was time to say goodbye to her. Even though Ron on Den of Geek wrote “they killed somebody nobody cares about.”
I read that stuff. I was like “Thanks Ron.” That was actually one of the reasons they offed me earlier than I would have been in the comic books is because Scott was like “we want somebody people will be really pissed about and you became way more popular quicker than we ever imagined.” I think it’s because a lot of women say “hey there’s a woman my size on the show.” It’s that and she’s a genuinely good person. Like a lot of them on the show. There was a purity about her.
Yeah, I’m bummed but I was also like “well, it must be time and time to move on,” and it was. I’m working on Gladys Presley now and I can really give my full attention to her.
Admit it. You were really the last straw, right?
Yeah and I like that they did it that way because I had formed relationships with those people. Rick was like, that’s it? You killed her? She’s done nothing but try to help. She had really good intentions from the get go. What Scott Gimple said was: it’s so senseless it really shows them what they’re dealing with. It confronts them with what they’re dealing with because it’s senseless, absolutely senseless, to kill Olivia.
By the way, both I and my daughter gasped out loud and then laughed, because it is the Walking Dead.
That’s actually a lot of people’s reactions when they read the script, too. Josh McDermott who plays Eugene said, “Ann, I gasped and then I laughed. It’s just a bit funny because I was so shocked and it was so sudden and it was so out of nowhere.” So it was a universal reaction.
Sun Records also stars Chad Michael Murray as Sam Phillips, Drake Milligan as Presley, Billy Gardell as Colonel Tom Parker, Kerry Holliday as Ike Turner, Jonah Lees as Jimmy Swaggart, Drake Milligan, Kevin Fonteyne, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Trevor Donovan, Keir O’Donnel, Jennifer Holland, Margaret Anne Florence, and Kerry Holliday.
Sun Records will debut Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 at 9 p.m. that’s Memphis time.